Last week, as usual on Thursday afternoon, I sat out in the cold on "the corner" with water, hot coffee and cookies to share with whomever decided to wander by. The wind blew steadily, making the damp, cold day more miserable than most.
It was a very "slow day" as compared to most of my times out there.
"Slow" is usually good. I've noticed that when the numbers are slim, the conversations go deeper.
One gentleman came by and blustered at me in the cold, "I'm the hardest of the hard, when it comes to being homeless and out here!"
"Well, I expect that's right," I replied as we shared a cup of coffee. "You gotta be tough out here, I can see that!"
"Yep, that's me," he went on, shaking his head between sips of the steaming coffee.
"Yeah, I know you're tough. . .but on the outside only," I went on. "I bet you're not hard on the inside where it really counts."
He looked directly into my eyes.
A smile slowly broke across his face.
"What would you say if I offered you a small house where you could live? Do you think you could handle that and help us build a new neighborhood? Are you tough enough for that?" I asked.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"Well,we're building 50 small cottages just down the street. Each will have a bedroom, a bath, a kitchen and a nice living space with a large front porch. We're going to 'screen folks in' to these houses, rather than screening them out." I explained.
"What does that mean?" he asked.
"Well, to live in one of the houses a person has to be chronically homeless, disabled and with some sort of criminal background," I explained.
The fellow drew closer to my face.
"That's me right there!" he exclaimed. "I'm homeless for years, disabled and been in prison four times."
"You see, it's that soft part of you inside that I need to make this new community work," I returned to our earlier conversation. "If residents don't own it, buy into the mission, it won't work. We need your help," I explained.
"You got a card," he asked.
"Sure do," I said, as I dug through my jacket pockets. "Let's just stay in touch about the house."
"We will," he promised as he turned to catch the bus.
The hard outside can be managed as an asset, so long as the inside of a man is still soft. I could read that essential softness in this new friend's eyes.